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Monday, February 15, 2010

Ian Carmichael: An actor from the age of elegance

It’s just over a week since the sad death of the actor Ian Carmichael. Here’s my tribute piece from The Spectator.

Neil Clark salutes Ian Carmichael, the definitive Wooster, who died last week. He personified the good manners, loyalty and self-effacement of Britain in days gone by.

I don’t think I have ever been so nervous before a telephone call. I had written to Ian Carmichael, via his agent, to ask if I could interview him for an article I was writing on the late Dennis Price, who had played Jeeves to Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster in the 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster.

Carmichael had written back to say that he’d ‘try to oblige’ if I telephoned him at his North Yorkshire home. ‘I don’t think I’ll be very much help,’ he added. ‘Dennis was a very private man.’ Hardly encouraging.

I was nervous because Carmichael, like Price, was a hero of mine. I had been brought up watching his films, and although too young to remember The World of Wooster, I had loved his portrayal of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey on television in the 1970s.

Suppose Carmichael — the epitome of cheerful affability on screen, turned out to be an old curmudgeon in real life?

I needn’t have worried. Carmichael, from the minute he picked up the phone to the time he put it down, almost an hour later, could not have been friendlier. We chatted not only about poor Dennis Price, who had died a bloated alcoholic at the age of 58, but films, the weather (it was snowing heavily that day) and cricket (one of Carmichael’s great passions).

Carmichael was incredibly easy to talk to — it really did feel as if I was chatting to someone I had known all my life, which in a way of course, I had. We kept in contact, and after my article on Price was published I received a very generous hand-written letter from him saying how much he had enjoyed it. But with characteristic modesty, he declined the opportunity of an article about himself — one I would dearly love to have written. ‘I’d rather not go in for an article about my own life,’ he told me. Can you imagine any actor saying that now?

Carmichael’s long life sadly ended last week. And though the phrase ‘end of an era’ is often overused, I think it is entirely appropriate in this instance. For Carmichael was a product of a kinder, gentler and more decent Britain. We simply don’t make people of his calibre any more.

His heyday — the days when he received star billing in a succession of films, was the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a period of rising living standards — when the ordinary person had never had it so good — but also a time when the old aristocratic elite still lingered on in the corridors of power.

In those days, Carmichael usually played the likeable but accident-prone romantic lead: his most memorable roles included the naive university graduate Stanley Windrush, who unwittingly causes a major industrial dispute in the Boulting Brothers’ classic satire I’m All Right Jack, and Henry Palfry, who is one of life’s serial losers until he enrols in Alistair Sim’s ‘School of Lifemanship’ in School for Scoundrels and gains revenge on his caddish rival, played by Terry-Thomas.

As he got older, so his roles became more aristocratic. P.G. Wodehouse regarded Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster as ‘the definitive version’. And although Dorothy L. Sayers was not around to see Carmichael’s portrayal of her great detective Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC series of the mid-1970s, it’s likely she would have been similarly impressed.

Carmichael regarded Lord Peter as a hero — according to the Daily Telegraph he ‘envied him his aristocratic insouciance, style and intellect’. Carmichael and Wimsey certainly had much in common. Both were bon vivants and connoisseurs of fine wines — Carmichael, when asked what he would do if he won a million pounds, said that he’d improve his wine cellar with a lot of ‘absolutely spiffing clarets’.

Like Wimsey, he was a man of effortless charm. ‘He had that love of life and love of people; he gathered people around him like other people gather butterflies or postage stamps,’ was one of the many tributes paid to him over the weekend.

He was also, like Lord Peter, an immaculate dresser. ‘He had a lot of style. He belonged to an age of elegance,’ said the actress Anne Reid. In one of the last interviews he gave, Carmichael lamented the dress sense of modern celebrities who ‘go on chat shows in scruffy open-neck shirts’. ‘I don’t think that’s right,’ he added. ‘You should always appear respectably dressed.’

Despite his considerable achievements, Carmichael was immensely unassuming. Although he had received the OBE, the headed notepaper he used simply had the words ‘Ian Carmichael’ on it. ‘He was never pushy. He sort of wandered through the world of film,’ recalls Richard Briers.

Carmichael was a product of a society where it was considered ‘jolly bad form’ to boast or to use one’s elbows to get to the top. He was from an age when the British were known the world over for their good manners — for apologising even when there was nothing to apologise for. It was an era when loyalty — to one’s country, one’s family and one’s comrades — came before personal advancement or monetary gain. Carmichael always turned out, whatever the weather, for the Remembrance Day service at Helmsley, where his old regiment — the 22nd Dragoons — was billeted at Duncombe Park.

Sadly, the Britain of good manners, loyalty and self-effacement, the Britain personified by Ian Carmichael, has been destroyed by 40 years of ‘me first’ social and economic libertinism.

The old elite which Carmichael so often portrayed — the elite of well-meaning but often bumbling toffs and aristocratic amateurs — has been replaced by a new, more hard-boiled and far less likeable ruling class who have only one motivation: making money.

The new age of materialism — enthusiastically encouraged by the new elite — has coarsened our everyday lives. Today’s icons are not self-effacing actors like Ian Carmichael, gentleman footballers like Tom Finney, or mild-mannered singers like Matt Monro, but charmless, foul-mouthed vulgarians like Alan Sugar, Gordon Ramsay and Amy Winehouse.

On Saturday night, I tuned in to the main BBC1 news bulletin to see what clips of Carmichael’s films they would show. And how did our national broadcaster mark the death of one our country’s best-loved actors? By ignoring it all together. Perhaps the BBC bigwigs decided not to feature Carmichael’s demise on their main evening bulletin because they thought younger people wouldn’t have heard of him. Or perhaps this very old-fashioned figure didn’t fit in with their brave new dumbed-down world.

Either way, we should remember Ian Carmichael, not just because of his wonderful performances on film and television, but because this most delightful of men reminds us of the country we once were.


jock mctrousers said...

Yes, I liked him but - excuse me for being curmudgeonly - I think you're over-egging it here: " The old elite which Carmichael so often portrayed — the elite of well-meaning but often bumbling toffs and aristocratic amateurs ...". In this " kinder, gentler and more decent Britain " the " old aristocratic elite [which] still lingered on in the corridors of power " fought tooth and nail to resist every effort by the proles to gain any basic quality of life - education, a 40-hour week, health-care, universal suffrage, you name it. And these 'aristocratic elites' aren't so far away now - we're shortly going to see them back red in tooth and claw under Lord Snooty.

" It was an era when loyalty — to one’s country, one’s family and one’s comrades — came before personal advancement or monetary gain." Yes, for the proles! Or they got shot at dawn!

" Carmichael always turned out, whatever the weather, for the Remembrance Day service " That gets straight to the heart of what's wrong with this image of the kinder days of paternal, one-nation Toryism. Just recently I was looking at some photos from WW1. One particularly stuck in my mind, of some young boys from one of the 'friends brigades' from Glasgow. These were army units comprised of entire 'boys brigades' sections. I was in the Boy Scouts myself, but it's the same sort of set up; boys who grew up together from the age of 9 or 10 or so, going off camping - great fun - and of course, getting filled with the jingoism about " doing our best to do our duty to God and the Queen". I think of all the boys I knew, from my street and neighbouring streets being sent off on an exciting adventure, camping in France, and real fighting with the Germans. You know what's coming don't you. The caption said that 70% of the boys in that photo, in that brigade were mown down by German machine-gun fire in one morning on the Somme. Them and hundreds of other 'friends brigades'. Bad show, what!

Neil Clark said...

Hi Jock,
It's great to hear from you- I was beginning to worry that you might have fallen ill.
When I talk about the old elite, I
don't mean 'Sir Cuthbert Ware-Artimage let's be a total cad and be beastly as possible to the proles' but the 'wet' Macmillanite Tory toffs, who, with their acceptance of the post-war settlement were far more left-wing than New Labour.
Macmillan himself supported public ownership, the mixed economy and progressive taxation. And his experiences in the trenches of WW1 made him very anti-war. Dave and his little gang of neoliberal warmongers have nothing in common with the old, genuinely One Nation Tories of yesteryear.
If the choice of elites was between Macmillanite grouse moor Tories, supporting the mixed economy, a non-aggressive foreign policy and progressive taxation, or the serial privatising, money-mad, warmongering Nu Labour, wouldn't you prefer the former?
All best, Neil

Robin Carmody said...

I agree that the old spirit of noblesse oblige could fairly easily meet the Attlee settlement in the middle (which is really what happened in the 50s and early 60s), and that there is much to be said for the Macmillan government - not least that it decolonised much more acceptingly and gently than France did in the same era, and (in my view; Neil probably won't agree) that it saw Britain's future as very much within Europe. I also feel that there is a clear gulf between the old aristocracy and the representatives of that class in Cameron's circles, who are much more influenced by the aggressive individualism of the Thatcher era (when most of them grew up).

However I think there is a good deal of sentimentalism at work here - ultimately, whatever happened or didn't happen, all we have is today, and we need to create something of our own from it. We cannot live on dreams forever. And, while I am strongly opposed to any military intervention against Iran, and recognise and accept precisely why those who voted for Ahmedinejad want him, I found the anti-modernist romanticisation of Iran in one of Neil's previous posts somewhat unsettling. Just because you don't want someone forcibly toppled doesn't mean you have to agree with them, and I fear that Neil romanticises Ahmedinejad for the same reason he romanticises Ian Carmichael - he dreams of a world before the self-assertion of the mass, before global communication, when it was easy for a nation to close itself off. Well, that isn't going to be possible again, and Neil has to face it.

Mr. Piccolo said...

Wonderful post, Mr. Clark. I think you really hit on something here.

I often feel that one of the downsides to today's obsession with meritocracy and upward mobility is that it engenders a feeling of superiority by the "winners" versus the "losers" in the competitive game that is now how we see life.

Not that I am against people working hard to achieve success in a given field, but I think extreme competition can warp a person's mind and make them misanthropic. I see this in a lot of people who come out of university and especially the professional schools. They are very driven and ready to make money, but also burnt out, unhappy, and with a less charitable attitude towards others.

I am not sure if this is accurate, but perhaps the old aristocrats had at least some sense of duty to the regular folk, and even if they often did not live up to that sense of duty in the past, the misery created by economic depression and war in the early parts of the 20th century helped to push toffs in the direction of supporting the post-war consensus?

Anonymous said...

The old Burkeian one-nation Tories represented what Jacques Lacan called the 'Big Other'. They weren't 'real', in the sense of a homogeneous group of benign toffs exuding noblesse oblige, but they didn't have to be. The trick of the Big Other, or the symbolic order, that sedimented core of culural mores and prohibitions (the expression 'bad form' sums up the latter beautifully), is that we (all of us, including the toffs) act as if it is real. It is a necessary illusion. Dispensing with it has destroyed the mythological core of British society, and now we all we have are the infantile antics of vulgar philistines as they cavort on the giant electronic screen that dominates our vision.

- questionnaire

Robin Carmody said...

I think Mr Piccolo's last point is correct - the generation who dominated the 1951-64 governments had seen vast levels of poverty early in the century and were determined that it should not be repeated. The phrase "One Nation Conservatism" itself comes from a speech by Disraeli in which he lamented the "two nations" (i.e. the rich and the poor), and in the specific case of Macmillan he had seen almost unthinkable poverty when he was MP for Stockton, an industrial area in the north of England (he later became the Earl of Stockton, but was MP for Bromley, a middle-class London commuter area, by the time he was PM), and his desire to see an end to this level of existence informed his later acceptance of the Attlee settlement, just as having lived through both wars and served in the first one inspired his pro-Europeanism (Heath hadn't been around for the first war, of course, but had served in the second: the key phrase here is "never again").

I also agree that national myths have disintegrated - but this has happened everywhere, and is surely a condition of global capitalism in its current form, which brings me to my central point: *ultimately, this sort of yearning isn't enough*. You have to create new responses for a new climate, and embrace what is being said about our condition *now* ... this sort of fantasy world will trap you in the end, and then you realise it's too late. I've been there. I know what I'm talking about.

Neil Clark said...

thanks for all the comments.
mr piccolo:
"Not that I am against people working hard to achieve success in a given field, but I think extreme competition can warp a person's mind and make them misanthropic."

I couldn't agree more. We are living in an elbow society, where we are encouraged to see other people not as comrades but rivals and competitors. And we wonder why there is so much unhappiness, so much loneliness, so much mental illness. The more 'competitive' a society is, the more sick its inhabitants become, as Erich Fromm warned over fifty years ago.

questionnaire: excellent post.

robin: I agree that yearning for the past is not enough, but we do need to acknowledge that, in terms of social cohesion, things were better in the past. Many self-styled leftists still believe that the money-obsessed, narcissistic, atomised Britain of today has more going for it than the much less materialistic Britain of the immediate post-war era. Until we tackle that illusion we're not going to be able to move forward.
btw, I was told you were mentioned as an 'excellent blogger' in Owen Hatherley's book. Many congrats.

Mr. Piccolo said...

Mr. Carmody and Mr. Clark: Thank you for the kind words.

While I agree that being overly nostalgic for the past can be counterproductive, I have to agree with Mr. Clark that it is necessary to point out that there were other times that were not so materialistic and atomistic. Neoliberals like to argue that the system they support is the only viable one for the future. It is a kind of deterministic argument reflected in phrases like “There is No Alternative” or “The End of History.”

However, by looking to the past, opponents of neoliberalism can show that there is nothing inevitable or natural about neoliberal capitalism, that governments can and did enact different policies in the past and had better outcomes on a number of measures.

I will also go out on a limb and argue that we should also look at more traditional societies for guidance as well. For example, among the Amish, people generally have less stress, less depression, and better mental health than people living in general society. Medical professionals believe that this is due to the higher levels of social cohesion among the Amish.

Now, I am not saying that Amish society is perfect, but I think we can learn a lot from people like the Amish when it comes to things like social cohesion. It shows that humans don’t have to live in an atomistic, ultra-competitive environment, with all of the problems that come with that sort of society.

I believe many, if not most, people realize that when it comes to issues like happiness, mental health, social and family cohesion, etc., we are much worse off now than we were 40 years ago. The big problem is that so many people have internalized the “There is No Alternative” message that they simply accept turbo-capitalism as something that can never be changed.

When Mr. Clark criticizes contemporary society from the standpoint of the past, he is helping to destroy the deterministic neoliberal myths, and is creating a basis for moving ahead.

If we can’t articulate why turbo-capitalist society is bad and show how it is not the only way to organize society, then alternative policy recommendations won’t be taken as seriously as they should be.

Robin Carmody said...

Make no mistake, I am strongly opposed to neoliberalism and to the idea that it is The Only Way - why else would tantalising dreams of the summer of 1978, of everything falling into place rather than being wrecked through a few people's strategic mistakes, haunt me even though I wasn't even alive at the time?

However I think it is a case of the post-war consensus being "modernised rather than abolished", as I've stated before, and articles such as that on Carmichael don't really hint at how that public-spiritedness and comparative absence of harsh, bitter, hateful competition between people could be redefined *today*. Obviously, the magazine it was written for wouldn't want that to happen anyway.

I am proud of my associations with the Mark Fisher/Owen Hatherley axis and wish I had the confidence in my own writing and command of ideas for them to go further (as has been offered to me), and indeed to blog more often.

But I do also think that one particular source cited in the comments in the Ahmedinejad post - the rosenoire website - is essentially far-right and reflects badly on anyone who is quite so desperately romantic as to use it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I enjoyed Mark Fisher's 'Capitalist Realism', but, once again, the conclusion left me frustrated. We must manage the transition into a better world 'practically and experimentally', he says, after a brief allusion to some unspecified form of 'rationing' and the 'limitation of desire'. That could mean almost anything. In the final paragraph he spilt the beans - we must wait for an event to tear a hole in the 'grey curtain of reaction'. This sounds like an under-developed variant of Alain Badiou's 'truth-event'. What, though, and, perhaps more importantly as we slide rapidly into cultural and ecological decline, when? There's something of the political and psychoanalytical readings of 'Waiting for Godot' in so many of these works by Fisher, Zizek and the rest. How will the 'resistance' - if it exists - make the break in the hegemonic shroud and create a new moral order (symbolic order) in which tomorrow's super-ego and social relations will be forged? Let's be honest about this - if there is no firm internal voice telling individuals to treat each other fairly and strive for ideals they won't do it, and those who refuse to do it in the most arrogant and spectacular way will achieve success and the marketplace and become the ego-ideals for whole generations. I'm not sure that a clean break is possible, it all sounds so Foucaultian, a thinker for whom I have little respect. As Braudel said, history is always a mix of continuities and discontinuities, and I think that Neil and others are right that some of our potentially most potent ego-ideals and moral codes existed in the past. The present is certainly a bit bare, and asking people to imagine them out of thin air is a bit much.

Neil Clark said...

Mr Piccolo:
"I will also go out on a limb and argue that we should also look at more traditional societies for guidance as well".

I couldn't agree more.

A few years back i wrote an article calling for a paleo-right/paleo left coalition in which I quoted Pete Seeger's comments which were in much the same vein.

"Pete Seeger, the authentic voice of the old American Left, a man once described as "so far Left he has probably never been called a liberal," got it spot on when he said that he was more conservative than Barry Goldwater. Goldwater just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax: Seeger meanwhile wanted to turn the clock back to "when people lived in villages and took care of one another."

Unfortunately the western left is so into the cult of modernity that it refuses to believe that more traditional societies may have the answer.

"if there is no firm internal voice telling individuals to treat each other fairly and strive for ideals they won't do it, and those who refuse to do it in the most arrogant and spectacular way will achieve success and the marketplace and become the ego-ideals for whole generations. "

Brilliantly put. And very true.

Mr. Piccolo said...

What a great quote about Mr. Seeger. I agree with those sentiments. I am sorry I did not comment on this earlier, because I think that is an excellent quote. Excellent articles too, Mr. Clark. Sorry to comment on the post so late.